The smallest and least known of Spain's Canary Islands, El Hierro, is making a splash by becoming the first island in the world fully energy self-sufficient through combined water and wind power.
A wind farm opening at the end of June will turn the gusts that rake the steep cliffs and green mountains of the volcanic island into electricity. Five turbines installed at the northeastern tip of El Hierro near the capital Valverde will have a total output of 11.5 megawatts -- more than enough power to meet the demand of the island's roughly 10,000 residents and its energy-hungry water desalination plants.
Although other islands around the world are powered by solar or wind energy, experts say El Hierro is the first to secure a constant supply of electricity by combining wind and water power and with no connection to any outside electricity network.
Surplus power from the wind turbines will be used to pump fresh water from a reservoir near the harbor to a larger one at volcanic crater located about 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. When there is little or no wind, the water will be channeled down to the lower reservoir through turbines to generate electricity in turn.
"This system guarantees us a supply of electricity," said the director of the Gorona del Viento wind power plant, Juan Manuel Quintero who is supervising final tests before the plant starts functioning in a few weeks.
The plant will account for 50 percent of the island's electricity demand when it is officially inaugurated at the end of June, a figure that will rise to 100 percent over the following months. The scheme will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 18,700 tons per year and eliminate the island's annual consumption of 40,000 barrels of oil.
El Hierro will maintain its fuel oil power station as a back up, just in case.
The island is cited as a pioneering project by IRENA, the international organization for renewable energy, and other experts such as Alain Gioda, a climate historian at France IRD science research institute.
"The true novelty of El Hierro is that technicians have managed, without being connected to any national network, to guarantee a stable production of electricity, that comes 100 percent from renewable energy, overcoming the intermittent nature of the wind," he said.
El Hierro's wind power plant has sparked interest from other islands seeking to follow its example. Officials from Aruba, Hawaii, Samso in Denmark, Oki in Japan, and Indonesia have all shown interest.